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Seven most common impact myths

19th July 2021

Research assessments like the UK’s Research Excellent Framework have helped focus attention on the importance of research impact beyond academia, but they can lead to a narrow view of impact that can hinder progress. It may seem that only specific types of research lead to positive change or that only big shows of impact count, but all types of research can make a difference in the world – even projects with negative outcomes.

To help you avoid some of the pitfalls around impact, we’ve identified seven of the most common impact myths:

1 Everyone means the same thing when they talk about impact

Impact is now an everyday word in the world of research. It’s easy to assume everyone is on the same page about what impact is but it has multiple definitions across different organisations and is understood differently by different stakeholder groups. We define impact as 'the provable effects of research in the real world'. It’s important to be specific about what you mean by impact, and to check how other stakeholders define the term.

2 Impact has to be big

Impact is change that happens as a result of your research. This means any change, regardless of the size, timing or location of that change. Real change can happen gradually, and is often a result of incremental, stepwise smaller changes. If we only focus on big, immediate impacts we risk missing the smaller steps that get us there.

3 Impact has to be positive

Impact itself is a neutral term – it can be positive, negative or a mix of both. Negative impact can be the preventing or stopping something from happening. These impacts can seem less visible or be harder to evidence, but still ultimately benefit society. Researchers also need to be aware of the potential for harmful or unintended impacts to emerge from research. Critical evaluation is key skill for understanding the full potential range of your research impacts

4 Impact happens at the end of a project

Impact happens when change occurs – which can be at any point from the start of your research project. Impact is not linear, and the routes to impact can be complex. Impact is not always an immediate outcome of your research, and change can happen decades into the future. 

5 Impact can’t be planned for

While plans can – and will – change, the action of planning helps maximise the potential for research to create impact. Planning for impact includes identifying the kind of change you want your research to achieve, for who and why. Plans help researchers identify what the indicators of these changes might be, and how they can be measured ahead of time. An impact plan acts as a map to help you navigate the changes you want your research to make.

6 Impact results from applied research

Theoretical research might need to take more steps to achieve impact than applied research, but it can still be part of the chain that leads to eventual change. Think about impact as a series of dominoes lined up – not all the dominoes need to fall to create impact. Sometimes your research might be right at the start of that chain making a contribution in the field that leads to a new method, which another researcher uses to create new data, which inputted into a new model leads to new policy change. The trick is mapping out the steps to that change.

7 Impact is something new

The concept of impact has been around as long as research itself. Research has always had an effect beyond the university walls, and many researchers over time have designed their research with benefits for society in mind. What is new is the increased emphasis on planning for and demonstrating the impact of your research.


Impact services

In recent years, external pressures have made healthy impact mindsets and cultures more difficult to embed than they need to beThat’s why we’ve developed our services platform; to empower institutions and researchers to become more impact-literate and meet impact head-on.